Amrita Gupta writes about why love simply doesn't cut it, when it comes to sustainability and the planet.
“What the world needs now is love sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”
When the Goya girls asked me to write about sustainability and love for Valentine’s Day, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Didn’t love get us here in the first place? We crave sushi so intensely we’ve all but wiped bluefin tuna off the planet. Our desire for Cheetos has cost us half our tropical rainforests. India’s demand for wheat and rice is depleting our groundwater reserves faster than we can replenish them.
Okay, what about a love that’s less, well, consuming, and driven more by appreciation? Could a love like that help save the planet? I used to be quite attached to this idea. Think about it: the currency of conservation trades in sentiment. If we could just “care” more for the environment, we’d be “friendlier” towards it. If we could “respect” Mother Earth, “feel one with” or live “closer” to nature, we would treat it better. And we wouldn’t be in the hot mess we are now.
The premise is simple, and we’ve heard it all before. We’re too caught up in the fossil-fuelled rat race, we’re too trapped in our concrete jungles and urban heat islands to feel any real connection with the rest of the planet. Yes, it is extraordinarily hard to care about the earth beneath our feet when we paved paradise and all that but still can’t find parking.
There is merit to the idea that we need to get outside more – to love our environment, we probably have to get acquainted with it first. We coo over turmeric lattes when most of us can’t tell a turmeric plant from tumbleweed. Just the other night, a friend thought a naturalist was somebody who didn’t like having any clothes on. But as we emerge from the hottest year on record, when we’re teetering on the brink of the sixth mass extinction, is love really enough?
Everywhere, the true custodians of the earth – subsistence farmers and fisherfolk, pastoralists, tribal or indigenous communities – talk about a higher, deeper connection to the earth than we can grasp. I’ve been working on a story about camels, and I learnt that the nomadic Raika caste in Rajasthan believe they were created by Shiva to protect the desert herds. It’s people like these who are on the frontlines, fighting climate change, standing against the exploitation of biodiversity and natural habitats. But, for them, it’s not just about feelings or a higher calling. Their livelihoods are dependent on the planet’s welfare.
For the rest of us to be stewards of a sustainable future, the stakes have to be higher. Even the most granola-crunching, tree-hugging conservationists have come round to this way of thinking: it won’t be love that gets us to protect the planet, but the right incentives (and disincentives). If it pays, it stays. If it’s free, or if it costs us too much, it probably doesn’t. The point is, we won’t value the environment just by loving it. We’ll value the environment when we attach the right economic value to it. Think of carbon pricing – when emissions cost money, we produce less of them. Or the UN-REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) which puts an actual price on forest ecosystem services, and pays developing nations to protect their forests instead of cutting them down.
In the past few months, I’ve been confronted by this nexus between economics and sustainability several times, albeit on a smaller scale. To list just a couple of examples: while making a podcast about Sikkim going completely organic, I learnt that the primary concern for the 66,000 farmers in the state now is finding a market that’s willing to pay more for what they grow. Organic food has a heftier price tag than conventionally grown food, even when it’s not quinoa or kamut, but say, dusty buckwheat and lumpy-looking oranges. Sure, there are no input costs from chemical pesticides and fertilisers. But agriculture that is kinder to the land is far more labour-intensive, and, at least initially, crop yields are lower. If the sustainable choice is more expensive and not even trendy yet, they wondered, would we still make it?
What happens when we don’t see the value of a sustainable choice? When I attended a talk by Harini Nagendra, author of Nature in the City, she said that the degradation of Bangalore’s tanks and lakes began soon after the city started receiving piped water from the Cauvery. Essentially, we stopped protecting our water bodies when we no longer needed them for water, or for fish. Protecting a lake for the lake’s sake, we’re finding, is incredibly hard to do.
The same goes for camels. India’s indigenous population of camels has fallen by more than 20 percent in the last ten years, and the Raika community finds their way of life threatened. When I asked veterinarian Ilse Köhler-Rollefson why, she told me that the herds are no longer needed for transport, and now, with the ban on their slaughter, they can’t be sold for meat either. Camels and other free-grazing livestock are key to sustaining our grassland ecosystems, but – Shiva’s benedictions aside – rearing them needs to be sustainable as well. Köhler-Rollefson is hopeful that the marketing of camel milk and other products might keep the country’s camels alive.
Sustainability for the “greater good” is rarely as compelling an argument as making a sustainable choice for a more selfish reason. I was reminded of this again when I was researching the cropping patterns in the Cauvery basin. I spoke to Sheelu Francis of the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective, a farmers’ group that encourages the cultivation of drought-resistant millets. She made it clear that farmers know millets are more sustainable than water-intensive cash crops like paddy, where around 5,000 litres of water is needed to produce just 1 kg of rice. But they also need a fairer market price. Consumers know millets are better for the environment too, but if we’re buying ragi, it’s because it’s better for our health. Her point: nobody’s going to be eco-conscious unless it works in their best interests too.
What the world needs now isn’t more love this Valentine’s Day. That’s kumbaya territory. If anything, we should probably adopt a smarter, market-based approach to the way we try and care for the planet. We could swear off palm oil products. We could try and find camel milk for our lattes.
But here’s the thing: even our good choices have consequences. We can shop organic, but our infatuation with quinoa caused prices to triple from 2006 to 2013, prompting fears that the indigenous Peruvian farmers – for whom quinoa is a culturally important staple and not just a cool superfood – could no longer afford to eat what they grow. Biodiversity suffers too. The export demand focuses on just a handful of varieties, so farmers in Peru are likely to abandon the 3000 or so other kinds. It happened with corn in Mexico. It’s too soon to say whether we’ll do the same thing to buckwheat from Sikkim.
We could decide to eat sustainably fished seafood, but that could mean salmon with all the right labels caught off the coast of Alaska, or nethili (anchovies) landed in Kerala. There’s always more to think about: seasonality, choosing to support an artisanal fishing community over a commercial trawling fleet, the environmental cost to eating higher along the aquatic food chain, supporting the local economy, the impact of all those food miles. I could go on, but I won’t.
Whatever it is we decide to do, we should accept we’ll be better at sustainability when there’s something in it for us. Sure, it’s mercenary – and it won’t ever be the perfect choice – but any other way of thinking is just too romantic.
Amrita Gupta is a journalist currently based in Bangalore. Formerly the food & drink editor at Time Out Bangalore and assistant editor at BBC Good Food India, she has a degree in Food Studies from New York University. Between meals, she works on a podcast series called the Food Radio Project. You can follow her @rainb0wt00.
Illustrations by Mira Malhotra of Studio Kohl.
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